The Elements of Urban Fantasy

While my books are considered Urban Fantasy as far as marketing and shelving goes, what I write, in my opinion, is supernatural crime fiction. At it’s heart, my series revolves around solving crimes. The main characters are on the side of law while the villains are criminals in some form or another. Much of Urban Fantasy falls within this purview, worlds full of paranormal creatures and people, both good and bad, perpetrating violence of some sort or striving against the odds to stop them. It’s fun stuff, pulling on elements from a variety of genres to create a unique blend of dark, gritty, suspense, full of action, romance, and crime-solving. I also believe it gets missed out on by a lot of readers who lump it together with paranormal romance, which I think is a genre in its own right, pulling from many of the same elements, but is at its heart, a romance. They are shelved together, but anyone who has read from both, will likely tell you they are distinctly different kinds of stories.

So, what makes good paranormal crime fiction? It’s not hard to imagine that the same elements that make good crime fiction, with or without the paranormal, make for good Urban Fantasy.

  1. Firstly, you need to have a crime-fighting protaganist. Typically, these are hardened, tough people, male or female, who aren’t afraid to take it to the bad guys. They aren’t sweet and loveable by nature, and can take as much shit as they dish out. Emotionally, they can be closed off, damaged people, abrasive, socially maladjusted, or just plain malcontents. They don’t really care much for following the norms or the rules, because that tends to interfere with their sense of justice in the world. At their core, they have an over-powering sense or righting the wrongs done in the world and seeing justice done. It’s important though to understand that this does not make them unlikeable. Typically, the redeeming qualities peek through enough to let the reader hope that they will change over time and lose some of that crusty outer shell and become a happier, healthier person.
  2. A paranormal world. This runs the gamut from putting supernatural elements into our contemporary, real world to creating an alternate world where the regular rules don’t necessarily apply. Whether it be cabals of vampires or zombies roaming the land or just plain old ghosts, Urban Fantasy gets the “Fantasy” tag from this element. It is what sets it apart into its own sub-genre from more traditional crime fiction. Because I think the supernatural makes for some damn cool story-telling, I believe it adds something special to the genre. Many readers out there eschew UF because of the fantasy element. They want their police procedurals or techno-thrillers straight up. There’s nothing wrong with this mind you, but often UF gets over-looked because readers believe the super-natural supercedes the crime fiction. This is not the case at all. Like I said earlier, UF is at its heart, paranormal crime fiction, adhering to many of the traditional elements of the genre. The paranormal merely adds a different flavor, turning it dark in a different way.
  3. And speaking of dark, UF, like most crime fiction, takes on a rather dark hue. It tends to be gritty and violent. It has or can have, a very noir flavor to it. Some may complain that genre fiction avoids the deeper issues that literary fiction is suppose to sink its teeth into. In actuality, the opposite is true. By incorporating an element that is by it’s nature pretty dark and full of mystery, UF is ripe with explorations of social, moral, and emotional issues. By pairing off with things distinctly non-human, UF can delve into what it means to be human, what it means to be alive in ways that more traditional crime fiction would have difficulties with. And because it deals with violence like all crime fiction, it looks at what it means to be good and just and treads through those murky waters of falling somewhere inbetween. Things are never easy for characters in good UF, and often they must make tough choices around achieving just ends through less than ethical means.
  4. Finally, like all good crime fiction, every UF needs quality villains. Personally, I like my bad guys to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of good and evil. Good villains should have a sympathetic quality to them. The reader should love to hate them and hate to love them. They need to root for their demise while at the same time, some small part of them should feel sorry for what’s happened. This interplay of emotions is key to creating the great UF villain. It could also be said that this dichotomy should apply in some way to the UF protaganist, making one cringe while at the same time cheering them on to victory.
  5. In the end. UF, and crime fiction in general does not always play out smoothly in the end, nor should it. Things don’t always work out exactly the way one plans in real life, and it shouldn’t in the UF story. Success comes in varying degrees, and while the prize should be obtained in the end, i.e. the defeat of the villain, this always comes at a price. Good crime fiction does not typically leave one with warm fuzzies at the end. It should make the reader think, stop and give pause and wonder, “The hero(ine) won, but…” Victory can be achieved in many ways, and conflicted characters should achieve it in a conflicting manner. The world is a difficult place, even when one finds success, and so it should be in the UF story.

These are five pretty general elements of UF or what I consider to be important when I think about what UF is or should be. I attempt to incorporate these in my Deadworld series, sometimes more successful than others. It is not so easy as just tossing in a kick-ass protaganist with an evil villain and letting them duke it out on the supernatural battlefield. It should be a tough read at times, make you think and tie your stomach in knots. At times it should also kick your moral compass askew and make you wonder about how things should really be. Exactly what is it to be just? What is it to be right versus wrong? And leave you at odds sometimes, swimming in the murky gray of the inbetween when it comes to deciding exactly where one should stand on important issues, whether social, moral, or personal.

Anyway, it’s food for thought or so I hope. What are your thoughts on the whole genre of Urban Fantasy. I’m curious to know. Happy reading/writing everyone!

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One response to “The Elements of Urban Fantasy

  1. Great article Jim. I completely agree that UF and PR are similar in some ways, but much different in others.